NEW YORK -- As the last-place Reds settle for being observers -- and potentially spoilers -- in the final weeks of the National League postseason chase, it's easy to wonder what might have been, had their pitching been anywhere close to keeping pace with the offense.
Cincinnati is finally seeing what its cadre of young arms is capable of. For a 14-game stretch that ended on Friday, the rotation had a 2.84 ERA and didn't allow more than three runs in any of its starts. Twelve of those games were started by rookies -- Luis Castillo, Sal Romano, Robert Stephenson and Tyler Mahle.
"The pitching has been fun to watch and play behind lately," Reds right fielder Scott Schebler said. "Hopefully that's a trend we can take through the next month and those young guys get more experienced."
Castillo, who was recently shut down when he hit his innings limit, was 3-7 but had a 3.12 ERA in 15 big league starts. Romano has a 2.64 ERA in his past five starts and over his past six games, including five starts, Stephenson is 4-0 with a 2.08 ERA. Mahle is winless in his three starts since coming up from Triple-A Louisville, but he has a 3.60 ERA.
"With the way our pitching has come around the last two to three weeks, there's definitely some optimism there," catcher Tucker Barnhart said. "There's a starting five that could definitely be able to pitch better than we have this season."
While at times it felt like feast or famine, the overall production of the Reds' lineup is a positive story. The team is ranked in the top six in many key offensive categories -- average, home runs, runs scored and OPS. The other teams in the top seven are all contenders -- the Nationals, Dodgers, Cubs, Rockies, D-backs and Cardinals.
If Zack Cozart hits one more home run, Cincinnati will have six players with at least 20 homers in a season for the first time in franchise history, a feat that's been accomplished just 24 times in Major League history.
Then there is the pitching. It's ranked last in the Majors in ERA (5.23) and near the bottom in WHIP. The rotation is also ranked last in ERA and innings pitched, averaging just five innings per start. An overworked bullpen -- which has the most innings pitched in MLB -- was eventually exposed.
"When we pitch a great game, we haven't been able to put up the runs," Schebler said. "And when we don't pitch great, we seem to put up a good amount of runs, but not enough."
Optimism doesn't erase pitching question marks, because there are plenty heading into next season. Besides the rookies, the organization also has Rookie Davis and Cody Reed who will want to establish themselves. Veterans Anthony DeSclafani and Brandon Finnegan will be trying to return from missing all or most of 2017. Homer Bailey, who has been inconsistent since his return from a third elbow surgery, needs to show he can work a full season. Beyond Raisel Iglesias and Wandy Peralta, the bullpen will need to be sorted out.
"From an optimist's standpoint ... there's a lot to be excited about with the young pitching," Reds manager Bryan Price said. "But they all have to continue to take steps forward and have the progress, especially if we make the commitment and sign off that these guys are going to be in our rotation next year, along with [Bailey]."
But Price noted that there will be added questions to answer from within.
"I think it's going to be an interesting offseason in regards to which direction we move," Price said. "Do we make a commitment to stay heavy with a young rotation? Or do we make a push to get more established and experienced pitching in here?"
Mark Sheldon has covered the Reds for MLB.com since 2006, and previously covered the Twins from 2001-05. Follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon and Facebook and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.